The original Engle class action An earlier panel ruling that had said a man whose wife died of smoking-related lung cancer and was part of the original Engle class action, could not rely on the jury’s conclusions in Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., including that smoking causes some diseases and that tobacco companies concealed smoking’s dangers.
On May 18, 2017, the Eleventh Circuit handed smokers a win with a decision that says federal law does not bar them from using the landmark Engle tobacco class action’s jury findings to establish strict liability and negligence claims, reports Law360.
Engle Lawsuit Background
The “Engle Progeny Litigation began with a 1994 class action lawsuit by a Miami Beach pediatrician, Howard Engle, claiming “injuries suffered from the health effects of smoking.” This led to thousands of individual lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers blaming them for resulting illnesses, creating a stream of trials in Florida state and federal courts, according to Tobacco Control Legal Consortium.
The Florida Supreme Court decertified the original Engle class suit and overturned a $145 billion verdict which allowed up to 700,000 people who might have won judgements to file suits of their own and rely on the jury’s findings. The plaintiff was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages for the death of her husband for smoke-induced lung cancer in 1992.
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R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris International Inc. Arguments
The two tobacco giants had argued that by passing legislation that does not ban cigarettes, Congress has established a policy of permitting the sale of tobacco products. But in the May 18th decision, penned by Judge William Pryor, the Eleventh Circuit said nothing in the federal laws “reflects a federal objective to permit the sale or manufacture of cigarettes” and that Florida is well within its rights to regulate cigarette sales and impose tort liability on tobacco companies, Law360 reports. Tort liability is the legal obligation of one party to a victim as a result of a civil wrong or injury.
“R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris would have us presume that Congress established a right to sell cigarettes based on a handful of federal labeling requirements,” the court said. “We decline to do so.”
The appeals court also denied the tobacco companies’ argument that use of the Engle jury’s findings violates their due process rights. The Eleventh Court noted that a review of the original Engle proceedings revealed that the jury decided common elements of the negligence and strict liability claims against tobacco companies. They had notice and chance to be heard throughout the lengthy trial, according to the court.
“We recognize that the Engle court defined a novel notion of res judicata, but we cannot say that the substance of that doctrine or its application in these trials was so unfair as to violate the constitutional guarantee of due process,” said the appeals court. Res judicata is a fundamental legal doctrine that, once a lawsuit is decided, the litigant parties are barred from raising the same issue again in the courts (unless material new evidence has become available).
In the plaintiff’s suit against the tobacco companies, a federal district judge decided that the plaintiff could rely on the Engle findings for his claims. A jury returned with a $2.75 million award against R.J. Reynolds that was later reduced to $550,000 and a $275,000 award against Philip Morris, taking into account that the plaintiff’s wife was 70 percent at fault, according to court documents.
However, an Eleventh Circuit panel in April 2015 found that the claims wrongly imposed a duty on all cigarette makers that they breached every time they put a cigarette on the market. The panel said, that the result was not consistent with Congress’ aim to give consumers the right to choose whether to smoke or not, Law360 reports.
The panel’s ruling was a meaningful win for tobacco companies, as it was the only court thus far to bar plaintiffs from using Engle findings to support their claims. But the Eleventh Circuit decided to rehear the case at the plaintiff’s request in January 2016.
It was remarked that the ruling essentially maintains the status quo and that the ruling was not a surprise.
Legal Advice and Information Concerning Potential Lawsuits
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